OPP bargaining starts amid Bill 124 limbo; union seeking salary increases

  • Canadian Press

TORONTO — Members of the Ontario Provincial Police are starting negotiations for a new contract, looking for wage increases as their union says they’ve fallen behind many municipal counterparts, but there is a potentially complicating factor.

OPP currently ranks 29th in the province for salary compensation when compared to other police services, said John Cerasuolo, president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association.

"That’s unacceptable," he said recently on the OPPA’s podcast. "We cannot be 29th in the province when we are the largest...police service in Ontario."

Staffing is a challenge and the OPP needs to have competitive wages, Cerasuolo said.

"We’re looking forward to getting the negotiations moving and getting through and ensuring that our members are properly compensated for the job that they do."

The OPPA’s last collective agreement ended on Dec. 31, 2022 and the next contract was supposed to be captured by Ontario’s controversial wage restraint law enacted in 2019. Known as Bill 124, the law limited wage increases to one per cent a year for three years for broader public sector workers.

Labour groups and unions representing hundreds of thousands of public sector employees challenged the law in court and won. The Ontario Superior Court found the law infringed collective bargaining rights and a late 2022 ruling struck it down as unconstitutional.

The provincial government took the case to the Appeal Court, and that ruling is expected any day.

In the meantime, the Ontario Provincial Police Association is bargaining in a limbo period of sorts, during which the provisions of Bill 124 don’t currently apply — but could apply if the Appeal Court reverses the earlier decision and upholds the law.

It could mean a significant difference in wages for members, as it recently did for the province’s correctional officers.

An arbitrator last month awarded them three−per−cent wage increases in the first and third years of their new deal and 3.5 per cent in the second year, with higher amounts awarded to nurses.

The previous contract for the correctional bargaining unit of the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union expired at the end of 2021, and at that time Bill 124 was still in effect, but it was struck down partway through their bargaining process.

"That really just shifted gears on how we were bargaining," said bargaining team chair Janet Laverty.

Since Bill 124 meant wage increases were capped at one per cent, Laverty said the team initially tried to focus on improvements to benefits and working conditions. Once it was deemed unconstitutional, money was on the table, she said.

"If they overturn it in the appeal, then that obviously sends us back to trying to figure out where we land."

Since the law was found unconstitutional, arbitrators have awarded additional retroactive pay to several groups of workers that had "reopener" clauses in their contracts, including teachers, nurses, other hospital workers, ORNGE air ambulance paramedics and college faculty.

Alison Braley−Rattai, an associate professor of labour studies at Brock University, said if the Appeal Court upholds the law, the OPSEU correctional contract could be revisited, as could all of the so−called reopeners.

"If a successful appeal were had, it would be tantamount to saying, ’Bill 124 should not have been inoperative because it was not actually unconstitutional and therefore, collective agreements — even those that were made in good faith — ought to have been subject to Bill 124,’" she said.

There have been many such "downstream effects" of Bill 124 that may not have been obvious or taken into account when it was first tabled, Braley−Rattai said.

Labour leaders and opposition critics have repeatedly called for the law to be repealed, and for the government to stop pursuing an appeal.

A spokesperson for Caroline Mulroney, president of the Treasury Board, said employers are required to address "existing collective agreement obligations."

"Our government always strives to balance the need for fiscal sustainability and being fair to those providing important public services. We are maintaining the government’s appeal to ensure it achieves the best outcome for taxpayers while being fair to frontline workers."

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2024.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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